In the Company of Flow

In the independent hip hop of DefJux, New York's old b-boys meet the sons they never knew they had

"Yo," he answers, gesturing that this is a call he has to take. It's MTV. Zack De La Rocha has just announced he is quitting Rage Against the Machine, and a reporter wants El, who is producing the singer's new album, to comment. But the breakup is news to him. And the collaboration is news to me. Perhaps El-P has never been better positioned to champion MCs he likes: He's the only degree of separation I can think of between Rage and Minneapolis's own Slug, of Atmosphere, with whom he has recorded a track and cultivated a friendship. ("At his best, he's one of the best," El says.)

Now El-P has left Rawkus to parlay his production company, DefJux, into a new label that might boost other non-jiggy acts. "We decided to get back to the way we want to do things--the way we've always wanted to do things--which is to do it ourselves," he says, winking but hedging when I ask if there's any bad blood with his old label. "I frankly wouldn't even talk about it if there was. If anything, Rawkus just reinforced how we felt about our own paths. We don't want to be superstars; we don't want to sell a million records. The important thing is that no one is going to care as much about our music as us."

His first-person plural no longer refers to his crew, however. In fact, DefJux's first release is also Company Flow's last: DJ Mr. Len and El-P will continue to collaborate, but will record solo albums next year. Still, Co-Flo fans might note that the more remarkable half of the crew's new split-EP, released this month via Fat Beats distribution, belongs to Cannibal Ox. Ox's Vordul Megilah and Vast Aire are both Harlem-reared members of the Atom's Family crew who have moved in with El to record and learn, sharing a small, poster-papered room with two mattresses.

"I don't want them to go through what I had to," says El, who admits he has always had "authority issues," and was marked early on by a particularly bitter experience with a small label he won't name. In Ox he has found younger friends he can "put on," to use Scotch's phrase, and El has clearly poured effort into landscaping the Alec Empire-like crunch of the crew's epic, echoing space funk on "Iron Galaxy." During a rally for Ralph Nader in Madison Square Garden, El even brought the duo onstage. "I was there to throw in my support for the philosophy that the options we have are too limited," El says, withholding an official endorsement in interview.

 

Anyone who doubts that Company Flow's music and rhetoric have had a deep (if narrow) impact on hip hop hasn't been paying attention to Chuck D's press releases--and, to be sure, many Old Schoolers haven't. Yet while the showcase of independent hip hop held in the West Village club S.O.B.'s the night after the Brooklyn symposium is officially part of the CMJ Music Marathon--for which the Chuck was keynote speaker--it has been promoted by flyers posted deep in Bed-Stuy. And MC Scotch isn't the only Brooklyn resident present to see masked cult headliner and old pal MF Doom. Doom's old crew, Native Tongues heirs KMD, had the poor but common luck of being underpromoted by a major label, Elektra, which refused to release their second album. Now Doom has gone indie, headlining a set that includes Atmosphere, the Micranots, and All Natural--with El-P and Cannibal Ox's Vast watching in the wings.

Perhaps perplexed by the electric reception afforded Atmosphere, Scotch pays closer attention to Doom's set, which zooms along nicely until Doom is suddenly, inexplicably, clocked by his partner, Megalon. Though the fight was supposedly staged, Atmosphere's Eyedea later reports that the blows to Doom's head looked real enough, and Vast blames the evils of "firewater."

Speaking of drink, sometime during the evening's confusion, Scotch recognizes me and asks how to compute a 20 percent tip on a $70 bar tab. I know it's his debt alone--he tells me so, in slurred words. And I suddenly wonder if there's a sense of sadness behind his remark the day before that "true hip hoppers have a day job." That statement was duly interpreted by an irate teacher in the audience as "Don't quit your day job," which missed the MC's anti-materialist point: Artists do art for its own sake, not the residuals. Still, one might hope that hip hop's stern elders would take a page from El-P and see materialism, at least of a more dialectical kind, as nothing to run away from. A willingness to appear onstage in this industry-sponsored gig--to engage the wider culture in the present day--might be a start.

Yet when I ask Scotch if he'll join in a freestyle onstage, he retreats into Old School cant and braggadocio. "I'll battle anybody, anytime, anyplace," Scotch says. "But on the streets or on the train. Not here."

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